Starting from scratch

Starting from scratch

Personality: Former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka, who became a mother recently, is charting her return with care

Starting from scratch
The child care was done, if only for a moment, and Victoria Azarenka was back where it all began, leaning against the wall that had been her first tennis companion.

“It was the best hitting partner, because it never misses, never complains,” Azarenka explained.

The wall is in a small gymnasium in the Republic Olympic Training Centre, a labyrinthine tennis facility in Minsk that was a short walk from the small, two-bedroom apartment Azarenka shared with her parents, her older brother, Max, and her grandparents.

Her mother, Ala, worked in the tennis centre, and Azarenka had the run of the place from a young age.

“I started with 40 kids hitting against the wall, and if you missed, you had to wait five minutes to hit another ball,” Azarenka, who is now 27, said during a visit this month. “So you made sure you didn’t miss.”

The stakes are rather higher now: Grand Slam titles, millions of dollars, national pride and, in November, a surprising first Fed Cup final for Belarus against the United States here. But the Darwinian nature of tennis remains the same.

Azarenka, once No 1, is on an extended break after pregnancy, but she is quietly yet fiercely determined to rise again. She will return with a new coach, the former journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and a new traveling companion in her son, Leo, who was born in December.

“Yes, I’ll do it for me, because I want to achieve my full potential, but it’s not anymore just for me,” Azarenka said. “I want to have my son be proud of me. I want to give him a good example that if you have a goal and you have a dream, you can achieve it if you work hard.”

She resists calling it a comeback. After all, she was not sidelined by injury, illness, burnout or misfortune.

But she will effectively be starting from scratch. When Azarenka returns to tennis, most likely in late July for the hardcourt tournament in Stanford, California, she will have no official ranking after more than a year away from the game. Instead, she will have a protected ranking of No 6 that will allow her entry — but no seeding — at eight tournaments, including two Grand Slam events, in the following 12 months.

Azarenka will come back, at least initially, to a world in which her biggest stumbling block is missing. Serena Williams, the greatest player of this era, is on leave, too, after announcing last week that she was pregnant and that she would not play until the 2018 season (if she returns at all).

Williams and Azarenka are friends, and Williams visited Azarenka’s home in Manhattan Beach, California, in early February.

“I know that Serena was asking me a lot of questions about babies when she came by my house, and I didn’t really make anything of that,” Azarenka said, laughing. “I knew it was going to be in her life at some point. I didn’t know it was happening now.”

“With the Grand Slams,” she went on, “it’s me who has to catch up to her, and she has to catch up to me with the baby. It’s a funny timing, but I do hope she is coming back, and we can have some more of our battles, because she’s one of the people I can’t imagine the tour without.”

Many see Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, as the biggest beneficiary of Williams’ absence. She has a 4-17 career record against Williams, with 10 of those losses coming in Grand Slam events.

“She will need probably a bit of time to come back, but I always thought that if Serena hadn’t blocked her path, she would have lots of Grand Slam titles,” Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach, said in a telephone interview. “Serena really hurt her, because Azarenka was very, very, very close to acquiring so much confidence that she would have been unstoppable.”

Mouratoglou described Azarenka as “very stable,” but there has been much upheaval in Azarenka’s personal and professional lives in the last 16 months, some of which was not disclosed until now.

During a tournament in Brisbane, Australia, in January 2016, her brother called in tears and, she said, told her that their mother had cancer. Azarenka said their mother denied it when she called her.

“Because she’s a very strong woman, and she never shows when she’s in a tough moment,” Azarenka said.

She went on with her season, reaching a peak in March and April when she swept to the Indian Wells and Miami titles — the so-called Sunshine Double — defeating Williams, 6-4, 6-4, in the Indian Wells final.

When Azarenka returned home to Minsk, her mother, by then very ill, met her at the airport with other members of the family.

“My aunt was crying; everyone was crying,” Azarenka remembered. “My mom couldn’t hide it anymore.”

The diagnosis was Stage 4 breast cancer, Azarenka said. “Then it was all just a roller coaster,” she said. “The worst thing is when there’s nothing you can do. You can help mentally, but you still feel helpless.”

Azarenka was also pregnant, although she did not know it yet. She was ill at tournaments in Madrid and Rome in May. She then retired, distraught and with an injured knee, in the first round of the French Open. She learned she was pregnant when she arrived in London after that defeat. She called her mother, who was about to have surgery.

“I was crying, and I didn’t know how to tell her,” Azarenka said. “And I was panicking because I knew of all my mom was going through, and she said, ‘That’s great news!'”

Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon that summer, citing the knee injury, and on July 15 she announced her pregnancy and break from the game. Leo was born in Los Angeles on December 19.

Azarenka’s new house with an ocean view in Manhattan Beach remains her primary base with her boyfriend, Billy McKeague, but she has chosen to do most of the preparation for her return in Minsk, where she has extensive family support. She plans to remain here until early July. She schedules her training around breast-feeding, and McKeague is an involved father.

He has an upbeat, easygoing personality, which can contrast with Azarenka’s intensity. But sometimes they compete, as they did during Azarenka’s morning fitness session at the luxurious Falcon Club, a new sports and entertainment complex.

This is Azarenka’s third team in three seasons, a high turnover for a player of her calibre. Her longtime coach and mentor Sam Sumyk, with whom she is now estranged, surprised her by leaving to work with Eugenie Bouchard in early 2015 and now coaches Garbiñe Muguruza. Azarenka then hired Wim Fissette as coach and added Sascha Bajin, Williams’ former hitting partner, to the mix.

Her game progressed under the well-respected Fissette, but Azarenka said he chose to coach British star Johanna Konta rather than wait for Azarenka’s return.

Azarenka said she parted ways with Bajin, who is now working with Caroline Wozniacki, because she could no longer justify having a full-time hitting partner.

Joyce, based in Boca Raton, Florida, did not arrive in Minsk until this month. Azarenka appreciates that he is straightforward.

Joyce, who is 44 and has a young child of his own, had been working with the young American player Jessica Pegula for five years. But, he said, “as the years have gone on, I’ve kind of had an itch to try to work with somebody who could get back to the top.”

He did some research on athletes’ returning after pregnancy and was reassured.
“It actually looks like, in a lot of cases, the women come back stronger,” he said. “I went out to LA and spent some time with her and was so impressed. For someone who has been already No. 1 and has won Grand Slams, she was just picking my brain. You could tell she’s hungry to get back.”

Azarenka wants to improve her serve and be more aggressive in her service games. She wants to upgrade her tactics and movement, and strengthen her body. Azarenka began hitting again on Feb. 4, close to seven weeks after giving birth, but she has focused mostly on fitness to prevent injuries. Though she said Williams was urging her to return for the French Open in May, Azarenka is taking her time.